40 Pools

Celebrating a Big Birthday with 40 Swims

Swim Flick: Touch the Wall

What’s better than a holiday weekend? A holiday weekend with a new swim movie!

There are a lot of reasons to recommend the documentary Touch the Wallwhich opened today. Star Missy Franklin is a joy to watch in and out of the water. Franklin’s family and coaches are wonderfully grounded and supportive. The underwater swim footage is mesmerizing. Older teammate and training partner Kara Lynn Joyce adds a different dimension as she pursues her third Olympics. The story of two champion female athletes who are both friends and competitors is rare in popular media. The theme of loving what you do comes through loud and clear. CA, sitting on one side of me, especially appreciated the dialogue with and insights from the coaches. For Jen, on the other side, the film brought to mind the antics of her daughters.

But you come here for pools, and that is yet another reason to check out this film about the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. How many places does an aspiring Olympian train and compete? It takes four continents to answer that question.

Franklin’s suburban Denver hometown pool looks like Anypool, USA. It’s packed to the gills with age-groupers no matter the hour–they don’t get the most convenient time slots–and they love it. Her high school pool is a little nicer but certainly does not scream world champion. The pools get better when she starts competing at the highest level: training camp in Brisbane, Australia; world championships in Shanghai, China. Success in those venues leads to an intense schedule of pool tourism. Long-course beauties in Palo Alto, Charlotte, Austin, the Florida Keys, and Indianapolis are on the circuit before the Olympic Trials. My favorite? The Keys–both for the pool and the open water swims with dolphins, where the highly evolved aquatic Homo sapiens and cetaceans are at times nearly indistinguishable.

The 2012 Olympic Trials, held in a pop-up pool in Omaha, was full of pyrotechnics both literally and figuratively. From there, eastern Tennessee and Vichy, France, are the final training grounds before the Olympic competition at the London Aquatics Centre. The pools and waterslide that star in USA Swimming’s “Call Me Maybe” video–Franklin’s directorial debut–are in Vichy.

Franklin could have written her ticket to any college team or pro contract before reaching legal age. Further proving that she’s an independent thinker, she chose Cal and its workmanlike Spieker Pool for her collegiate career while many of her teammates headed to snazzy Stanford.

At 1:48, the film is longer than I generally opt for, and at moments I thought it would have been stronger with a focus on Franklin alone. But that wouldn’t have been the real story, and I ended up grateful for the dueling narratives and definitions of success.

I’d like to know more about how the filmmakers started working with Franklin when she was just 14 years old, and how the narrative arc took shape. Their website isn’t fully fleshed out, so maybe these answers are coming. In the meantime, grab your swim buddies and race to the theater for this one-week engagement.

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Poolside Reading: Fighting the Current

Fighting the Current coverIf you are seeking a good book to help pass the cold, dark days, or wondering about holiday gifts for your favorite swimmers, I present to you a suggestion. Lisa Bier’s Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870-1926 (MacFarland, 2011; paperback, 220 pages) gives the story behind the story of the famous swim accomplishments of the 1920s, most notably Gertrude Ederle’s record-breaking, stereotype-smashing English Channel crossing.

My knowledge of open water swim history has progressed in reverse order. When I took to the Hudson in the early 2000s, I knew that I was part of a wave of swimmers enjoying less-toxic waters thanks to the Clean Water Act. A swim buddy lent me Diana Nyad’s Other Shores, and from that I learned about training sans goggles and the 1970s marathon swim scene. Like Nyad, I was unaware of her forebears. A trio of new works published during my own marathon swim heyday enlightened me: Tim Dahlberg’s America’s Girl, Glenn Stout’s Young Woman and the Sea, and (my favorite of the bunch) Gavin Mortimer’s The Great Swim. All paint a rich picture of the 1920s and its leading swimmers, particularly the women. Reading these, you realize how sidelined our sport has become.

Like all great historical movements and figures, Ederle and the 1920s swim craze did not emerge from a vacuum. Bier’s book fills in the backstory. Our great city, I learned, was at the forefront of men’s and women’s swimming for more than 50 years, both in the pool and in open water. Bath houses, floating baths, and Ys (both Christian and Jewish) are all part of the story, evolving along with the fashions and “swim costumes” of the times. New Yorkers were swimming under the Brooklyn Bridge, down the Hudson, through Hell Gate, and off Staten Island in droves during the early 20th century, charting courses we are rediscovering today. Organizations supported first water safety and then competition, building an audience and a field for the eventual Olympic debut of women’s swimming.

Bier presents a trove of stories and photos that bring to life the camaraderie, rivalries, and intrepidness of this bygone era. We owe these pioneering swimmers–and her–our admiration and gratitude. We’ve come a long way, and yet we still have plenty to learn from looking back.

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